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Connecting Heaven and Earth

12/10/2019 09:35:35 PM


On December 9th, 1948 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and on December 10th voted to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These landmark documents, created in direct response to the Holocaust, fundamentally transformed the ways in which the world thinks about responsibilities to every individual person.
The pair of documents calls to mind Jacob’s ladder, which opens this week’s parshah. The ladder is “set on the ground, and its top reaching the heavens, with messengers of God going up and down on it.” (Gen. 28:12)
“Its top reaching the heavens”—this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets forth a grand, lofty vision of how nations should treat their citizens with inherent dignity.
“Set on the ground”—this is the Genocide Convention and the other human rights treaties that have since become international law. These encode grand ideas in concrete details, spelling out in legal language the precise obligations of sovereign states and of the international community.
“Messengers of God going up and down”—these are the efforts we make to bridge the gap between the world that we live in and the world to which we aspire.
Rabbi Hiya and Rabbi Yanai discuss this passage in the midrash. One of them taught the messengers were going up and down on the ladder, the other that they were climbing Jacob himself [Breishit Rabba 68:12].
The text in Hebrew reads: olim veyordim bo. In context, the word bo, meaning “on it,” likely refers to the ladder; the divine messengers “went up and down on it,” that is, the ladder. But the word bo could also be read “on him,” that is, the angels were ascending and descending directly on – or perhaps through – Jacob.
How can we make ourselves into vessels through which divine messengers might reach heaven? How can we ourselves serve as messengers with a sacred task?
These are the queries, the motivation, the essence of the call to observe a Human Rights Shabbat, and why I’ve been marking it since it began in 2008 as a project first of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, now known as T’ruah: the rabbinic call for human rights.
Whatever our conception of the divine, we can all relate to the notion of reaching beyond ourselves to connect with individuals, communities, circumstances and issues. That these connections are disrupted and ruptured by systemic injustices, often on a horrifically massive scale, surely motivated a small number of visionaries to use their voices and skills to create the two documents – the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They didn’t just dream. They connected the upper and lower realms, the lofty language detailing the down-to-earth obligation of nations and leaders.
When Jacob wakes up from his dream, he says, “…Surely YHVH is present in this place, and I did not know it.” He continues, in fear, “How awesome is this place; this is none other than the abode of God…” [Gen 28:16-17].
This is a moment of profound awareness, transmitted in just a few pithy verses. And while the language is ancient and the scenario mythical, we can readily identify with Jacob’s emotions. Our translation offers “shaken” for the verb “fear,” which not coincidentally shares its root letters with the word “awesome.” It is a fearsome, awesome task, to take on the injustices we see, the injustices we experience, the injustices that prevail.
When we at ORH looked at this year’s calendar of Shabbat offerings, it transpired that this past Shabbat was the best date to incorporate our New Member Shabbat, an opportunity to welcome those who have joined us most recently. Our membership coordinator inquired if it would be alright to overlap the two. That was an easy yes, for at the core of our marking Human Rights Shabbat we encounter the existential as well as practical query: why are we here?
From the recent 2018 Environics Institute Survey of Jews in Canada 2018 Environics Institute Survey of Jews in Canada, we learn that a majority describe each of these as essential to what being Jewish means to them: leading a moral and ethical life, remembering the Holocaust and celebrating Jewish holidays. Following closely in the second tier we find working for justice and equality in society. Far fewer place importance on observing Jewish law or attending synagogue.
Martin Klein, a member of our sister congregation in Toronto, had this to say about Darchei Noam and Human Rights Shabbat: “For me, the most meaningful thing has been to find Jewish roots for my social activism. I have been a secular humanist for most of my life. I did not particularly want to live as a Jew and in fact, had little idea what that meant until I married a rabbi’s daughter…Human Rights Shabbat gave meaning to my decision in my late 70s to join my wife’s synagogue.”

While each of us is surely here for very personally specific reasons, I’m struck by the opportunity this presents. Here at Or Haneshamah, we have recently reshaped our approach to planning and leading our core activities for Shabbat and holidays. With the Many Hands initiative and members new and old, we are primed to more fully explore the issues detailed in the survey as they relate to our corner of the Jewish community: identity, racism and discrimination, religion, intergenerational change, education, political engagement.
T’ruah’s Human Rights Shabbat invitation this year parallels an invitation we heard from the bimah this past Rosh Hashanah, when our member Monica Rosenthal called us to get together and prioritize what we might work on in the community at large, putting our values into practice. T’ruah suggests that the work of observing Human Rights Shabbat 5780 be extended into a year-long engagement with issues around Racial Justice, Inclusivity, Diversity and Welcoming. Let’s see if we can become a congregation of WRESTLERS with how to be audaciously and inclusively welcoming; EXPLORERS of our unconscious biases about who belongs; SEEKERS of new pathways and partners as we delve into the issues we discover at work in our midst, and in the world.
Jacob saw the divine messengers going up as well as down the sulam.  Whether ascending to the lofty heights, or heading back down to the nitty-gritty of earthly matters, we take one rung at a time, perhaps miss-stepping, recovering our footing, and heading back up; perhaps stopping on a particular rung to get our bearings as we head into the fray. Just as there is a plethora of metaphors and interpretations, so there is a wide array of resources and guides to access as we explore these issues.
We join ourselves to the dreamers and drafters, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to the French Jewish jurist René Cassin, to feminist and activist Hansa Mehta of India, and diplomat Charles Habib Malik of Lebanon. We join in the challenge and opportunity to change the world, just as they changed the world by enabling individuals and nations to understand the systemic ways that harm is perpetrated. We join as members of a Reconstructionist Jewish community in Ottawa, our capital city, with congregations across Canada and the United States to make every place we gather an awesome place of awareness, acceptance and transformation.

Sun, January 17 2021 4 Sh'vat 5781